Rubina Singh speaks to Gabi Pezo and finds out what inspires her to make people laugh
While the benefits of yoga are well recognised globally, there is another form, which at least in this part of the world, still remains relatively unknown. But thanks to Doha resident and certified Laughter Yoga teacher Gabi Pezo, it’s gaining in popularity.
Laughter Yoga has brought significant changes in the lives of people with physical and even mental disabilities. Originating in India, it is known to reduce stress, increase pain tolerance and result in a stronger immune system with no side effects. It is also being practiced to promote weight loss. As long as you are willing to laugh unconditionally, irrespective of your circumstances, Laughter Yoga has the potential to change your life.
Gabi Pezo was born and raised in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Her early years were tumultuous as a consequence of parents often arguing, separating and getting back together. Totally upfront about her experiences, Gabi acknowledges that she lived in a “dysfunctional family” but candidly accepts that in the present time that is increasingly becoming a norm rather than exception.
Her emotional maturity and take- me-for-who- I-am attitude is certainly an important part of her personality.
Gabi was initially based in the US. After graduating from Florida International University with a degree in Advertising and Mass Communication, Gabi went on to study at the prestigious Miami Ad School graduating with a degree in Art Direction. After working in New York for a while, she relocated to Dubai and in 2010, moved to Doha where she now lives with her husband and six-month-old son. Excerpts …
From Art Director to Laughter Yoga teacher … what made you change your direction?
During my college days, my ultimate dream was to work at an advertising agency as an art director. However, soon after entering the workforce, my excitement turned into a nightmare. My boss used to yell at all of us and give us what I call “insulting pep talks”. Advertising is very cut throat. Competition was fierce. Soon after I got sick with chronic migraines (something that I had never experienced before) and became depressed. I was distraught that something I longed for was not what I hoped for. After that I started freelancing as a graphic designer and have been doing that ever since.
How did you get interested in Laughter Yoga?
In 2007, before I moved to Dubai, I was working as an intern in New York and my boss at the time asked me what I wanted to do in the future. I told him that I just wanted to be happy and make others happy.
I knew that was my purpose in life. But I just didn’t know how I was going to achieve it. He told me about this group of people in India who get together every day in public parks just to laugh. I became curious and looked it up on the Internet.
I found one video where John Cleese is in Mumbai interviewing this Indian doctor who invented something he called Laughter Yoga. At the time I had a vague idea of what yoga was … holding a pose and breathing in a pattern but Laughter Yoga? I became curious and looked up for more information and came across a training course to become a leader for Laughter Yoga and I knew straightaway that this was my calling.
The interesting thing was that when I told my Laughter Yoga trainer I was moving to Dubai he was quite sure it would not be possible to do it there. And somehow that stuck in my mind … when I moved from USA to Dubai. So I focused on other things like design work and travelling.
In 2011, I realised that even though I had travelled, achieved professional success and had a fulfilling relationship with my husband yet something was missing. So I enrolled to be a counsellor at the church camp here in Doha and proposed to do Laughter Yoga with the kids. It was such an enjoyable and satisfying experience that I decided it was time to go back and really do this.
Does Laughter Yoga differ from other forms of yoga …?
Laughter Yoga is like any other type of exercise and combines laughter exercises and yogic breathing (pranayama). The only difference is that in traditional forms of yoga, you get better at poses and breathing with time and practice whereas Laughter Yoga is so much easier to master! The most important element is the willingness and playfulness you bring to class.
Tell us about the origin of ‘Laughter Yoga’ …
Dr Madan Kataria, a medical doctor in India, started Laughter Yoga in 1995 without even knowing it would become a movement. Over the years it was conceptualised by him and his wife Madhuri in what we now practice as Laughter Yoga. He formed the Dr Kataria School of Laughter Yoga. He based it on the fact that the body does not know the difference between fake and real laughter and so in both cases releases endorphins — chemicals that trigger a positive feeling. Fast forward 18 years later and Laughter Yoga is now all over the world, improving the lives of everyone who is willing to engage in it.
Did you come across any hurdles along the way?
During my training in 2012 I received a phone call from my sister telling me my mom was hospitalised. My mom had many health problems so I was worried. In such a situation, it was really a challenge to bring myself to laugh.
And how did you overcome that?
Well, Laughter Yoga teaches you to laugh despite your circumstances. And so I put my heart, my soul into this training. I was all the way in India, mom was in Ecuador and I had to finish my training.
I fell sick. I was tired, but despite all that I kept laughing. Mom’s condition got worse to the point she was admitted to Intensive Care. And since I was sick I decided to get checked before travelling to see my mom. It was then that I discovered I was two months pregnant. Not long after that my mom passed away and I went through a very difficult time. How could I laugh when I had lost my mom, when I was becoming one? But I owe my sanity to Laughter Yoga. It really did help me focus on the positive.
That was my biggest hurdle, losing my mom at a crucial time in my life when I was ready to expand into the realm of Laughter Yoga. Instead I took time to deal with my grief and continued to do a little bit of group therapy at conferences. Laughter healed my soul.
I feel that I am ready to spread laughter in Doha and with support from wellness coach Nicole van Hattem, I have been lucky enough to be able to facilitate this and experience laughter with so many people through conducting group sessions for corporate clients as well as community members at ‘The Art of Abundant Living’ wellbeing centre.
What are some of the benefits of Laughter Yoga as compared to conventional workout?
It’s a no-sweat cardio workout, fairly easy to learn and do. It is safe for all age groups and a great way to inspire interest in yoga amongst children, especially those struggling with obesity. It promotes circulation and blood flow. According to Dr Kataria, one good hearty laugh burns up to 4 calories. Laughing 100 times a day is equivalent to 10 minutes of hard rowing. A good strong laugh for 10-15 minutes a day increases weekly energy consumption by up to 280 calories. Laughter brings more oxygen to the body and brain and also releases endorphins, a chemical 10 times more powerful than the pain-relieving drug morphine.
Is there any scientific, factual data to prove that Laughter Yoga can be an effective tool for weight-loss?
Research done by Dr Williams Fry of Stanford University has proved that 10 minutes of hearty laughter is equal to 30 minutes on the rowing machine. This is not in terms of muscular movements but a cardio pulmonary endurance. The purpose of all aerobic exercises is to stimulate heart rate, increase blood circulation, supply oxygen and remove waste products.
You are also holding corporate training sessions. How can it be useful for the workforce?
More and more organisational heads are realising that a happy, healthy, reduced stress work environment results in greater productivity and hence are focusing on promoting staff health and wellbeing.
There is a fair amount of research that proves the impact of laughter in increasing efficiency and, in particular, a study by the University of Wisconsin Hospital strongly substantiates this theory.
Another study conducted by Professor Dr Heiko Wagener of University of Munster also supports the theory. The objective was to do a comparative study about the impact of Laughter Yoga on the muscles of the belly.
The experiment involving two groups of people — one doing laughter exercises and another group doing calisthenics showed that the group doing laughter exercises showed greater mobilisation of the low lying muscles than the group doing callisthenic exercises.
From USA to Dubai to India to Qatar …you have carried the flame of your passion to make people laugh. How is the community in Doha able to access the benefits of this unique path to good health?
A community event is being organised in collaboration with Art of Abundant Living — Holistic Health Coaching Centre. Two inaugural sessions will take place next week, one which is specifically tailored for corporate and individual clients and another free session will be open to public.
What can people learning or practicing this form of yoga expect to feel?
The Laughter Yoga sessions will highlight the importance of laughter in mitigating tension and injecting exuberance into the practicing individuals through different laughter, stretching and breathing exercises.
Practicing Laughter Yoga is a great way to exercise body and mind. It brings more oxygen to your body making it energised and relaxed and reduces stress and therefore improving immunity and resulting in greater general well being. Laughter Yoga is a complete wellbeing workout.